What exactly is “human nature”?

My wife drew my attention to this brilliant profile of Joe Henrich, a behavioral science researcher at Columbia University. Originally an anthropologist, Henrich is the pioneer of a field of research examining how culture and upbringing shape how we view the world and how we behave.

The article begins by telling the story of Henrich’s behavioral experiment with the Machiguenga, an indigenous group in Peru, which found that the Machiguenga’s choices when playing a simple game involving giving and receiving sums of money were dramatically different from the choices of Western participants. Specifically, the Machiguenga seemed not to behave in a self-interested, rational manner as you might think. Here’s a passage from the piece:

As Heine, Norenzayan, and Henrich furthered their search, they began to find research suggesting wide cultural differences almost everywhere they looked: in spatial reasoning, the way we infer the motivations of others, categorization, moral reasoning, the boundaries between the self and others, and other arenas. These differences, they believed, were not genetic. The distinct ways Americans and Machiguengans played the ultimatum game, for instance, wasn’t because they had differently evolved brains. Rather, Americans, without fully realizing it, were manifesting a psychological tendency shared with people in other industrialized countries that had been refined and handed down through thousands of generations in ever more complex market economies… In the small-scale societies with a strong culture of gift-giving, yet another conception of fairness prevailed. There, generous financial offers were turned down because people’s minds had been shaped by a cultural norm that taught them that the acceptance of generous gifts brought burdensome obligations. Our economies hadn’t been shaped by our sense of fairness; it was the other way around.

The main conclusion of this research is that certain features of economic behavior that we like to think of as part of human nature don’t in fact seem to be that universal. Specifically, we Westerners seem to behave in a more individualistic and self-interested way, not because our genes are different but because culture exerts a strong influence on how we behave economically.

Now, you can take that conclusion one step further and call for the rejection of classical economic theory, because it assumes individuals to be self-interested. But this type of criticism of how economists model human behavior is based on a misunderstanding of economic theory, I think. The point of theoretical models is to approximate how people behave in a way that is mathematically elegant, understandable, and useful for making sense of the world. It is not supposed to be some normative judgment on human nature. Smart economists recognize the purpose of these theoretical assumptions, and don’t take them too far. I’m going to write something else about this at some point, but just haven’t had an opportunity.

Nonetheless, it’s hard to ignore that there is a very prominent segment of Western culture and philosophy that declares that we human beings are nothing more than selfish, materialistic animals, and any effort contrary to that nature is ultimately futile. That’s extremely dangerous, exactly because of Henrich’s finding that our collective culture shapes how we behave as individuals. If we are consistently told we are selfish beings, and we all collectively believe this to be true, it surely influences how we act. In that sense the declaration that human beings are inherently selfish becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I remember a few years ago reading an article about the London Zoo’s exhibit of human beings, which featured actors wearing fig leaves positioned in an outside enclosure next to the zoo’s other primates. In the article, one of the actors is quoted as saying that “A lot of people think humans are above other animals… When they see humans as animals, here, it kind of reminds us that we’re not that special.”

I get it: human beings are primates. We all know this. But if human beings’ natural state of being is to roll around half-naked in the dirt, what about things like philosophy, music, drama, science, and technology? Do these observed aspects of human behavior not count as part of our “nature”?

Like a lot of other things, one of the reasons I feel strongly about this is that I am a Baha’i. The Baha’i teachings are very clear on this: human beings have both a material and a spiritual nature, and we should strive to cultivate the spiritual side of ourselves while controlling the material side.

These are Baha’u’llah’s words, speaking as if the mouthpiece of the Creator, on the inherent nobility and spirituality of the human being:

O SON OF SPIRIT! I created thee rich, why dost thou bring thyself down to poverty? Noble I made thee, wherewith dost thou abase thyself? Out of the essence of knowledge I gave thee being, why seekest thou enlightenment from anyone beside Me? Out of the clay of love I molded thee, how dost thou busy thyself with another? Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting. (Arabic Hidden Words, v. 13)

But once again, the Baha’i teachings don’t deny the more base, animalistic aspects of human nature. Here is ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s explanation:

In man there are two natures; his spiritual or higher nature and his material or lower nature. In one he approaches God, in the other he lives for the world alone. Signs of both these natures are to be found in men. In his material aspect he expresses untruth, cruelty and injustice; all these are the outcome of his lower nature. The attributes of his Divine nature are shown forth in love, mercy, kindness, truth and justice, one and all being expressions of his higher nature. Every good habit, every noble quality belongs to man’s spiritual nature, whereas all his imperfections and sinful actions are born of his material nature. If a man’s Divine nature dominates his human nature, we have a saint.

Man has the power both to do good and to do evil; if his power for good predominates and his inclinations to do wrong are conquered, then man in truth may be called a saint. But if, on the contrary, he rejects the things of God and allows his evil passions to conquer him, then he is no better than a mere animal. (Paris Talks, p. 60)

The point is, there is no predetermination in human nature — we are not hopelessly compelled to selfishness — something which I think some social science research like Henrich’s supports. Each of us has choices, the most important of which is whether to behave as an animal or as an enlightened soul. Making that subtle shift in how we think about ourselves could make a big difference in our collective lives.

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2 thoughts on “What exactly is “human nature”?

  1. Good post, but did you just argue that the Machiguenga are less selfish than Americans? I didn’t get that from the article, or at least from the excerpt you pasted.

    • Yup, should have been more clear on that, good question.

      The article (or the researchers themselves) doesn’t really argue that the Machiguenga are more virtuous, just that they have different social customs about giving, receiving, and personal ownership. These customs shape how they behave, and how they see the world.

      The article does make the case that Westerners are more oriented towards individualism and less towards community. Does that mean we are more selfish in our hearts? Maybe, but not necessarily. The article doesn’t make that leap, and I wouldn’t either.

      The point i was trying to make is simply that what we call human nature is not preordained, and we shouldn’t assume we are trapped into behaving a certain way.

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